Please welcome today’s guest writer, Stephen Mulder. Stephen lives in Grand Rapids and is a former regular writer for The Post Calvin.
A few minutes before puck drop at Friday night’s Griffins game, as before pretty much every sporting even I’ve ever attended, there was a moment where I tensed up, gritted my teeth, and inhaled sharply in sympathetic pain. Usually this happens on or around “proudly,” though in better circumstances I can hold it together until “perilous” or “ramparts,” which is about the very longest any normal human being can keep our national anthem in its original key.
My wife hates it when I do this. She says it’s disrespectful, which it is, and prevents her from being able to enjoy the moment, which it does. unless the key is chosen very carefully. It’s traditionally performed in B flat major, putting the low note (a B flat) on the proverbial rumble strips for your average tenor or soprano, and the high note (a high F, cruelly placed near the very end of the song) in the no-fly zone for most basses and altos.
The real problem, though, is the jumpiness of the melody—descending and ascending triads, a couple of sixth jumps, etc. With all those difficult and precise leaps, it’s next to impossible to keep the whole thing in pitch from start to finish, unless you have a band (or a tape) backing you up.
The thing is, I have to admit that I actually kind of like the song itself. A number of good arrangements exist that provide an interesting harmony. In the hands of a competent brass band or trained choir, it can even approach stirring.
As for the words, well—I’m not terribly crazy about such militaristic language in our official anthem, and “land of the free” always rings a little hollow considering the poet, Francis Scott Key, was a slave owner who bitterly opposed (and prosecuted) abolitionists at his day job as a U.S. Attorney. But the words do take on a certain depth of meaning when placed in their historical context. When Key wrote them, in the aftermath of the Battle of Baltimore, the future survival of the nation was still very much in doubt. Only a few weeks earlier, Washington itself had been burned and briefly occupied by British forces. That glimpse of the flag still flying over Fort McHenry after the British bombardment must have been an inspirational sight.
So the song itself, on its own terms, gets a pass from me. I just think it should be illegal to sing it as an unaccompanied solo without a license.
Yes, it has its merits as a piece of poetry and music. Certainly, it holds historical significance. I fully endorse performances at public events of national or patriotic significance. I just wish we hadn’t chosen something so inaccessible, and so easily butchered by even great singers, to stand as our national song.
It’s not like there weren’t plenty of other suitable patriotic songs that were a bit lighter on the war imagery and a little easier on the vocal chords. In fact, for most of its history the United States had no official anthem—”The Star Spangled Banner” only received that legal status after a 1931 law. I doubt Herbert Hoover was thinking at the ramifications for minor league hockey games eighty-four years down the line.
I understand why the anthem still means a lot to people—although, deep down, I’ve always thought that the cultural requirement for all sports leagues play or perform it before every game is a little bit odd. (The tradition began with Major League Baseball during WWII, and spread to other sports and leagues thereafter.) I know lots and lots of people still love hearing it, regardless of the quality of the performance, and I definitely don’t begrudge them of it. There are occasions when it inspires me, too. It’s a good song.
It’s just maybe not a good anthem. No shame in that. America may be the home of the brave, but that doesn’t mean our anthem should be terrifying to sing.
Stephen Mulder (’10) is a copywriter, editor, account manager, husband, and member of two semi-professional choirs in West Michigan. He spent the majority of his college days inside the Chimes office, eventually serving as editor, web manager, and delivery-boy-in-chief in 2009–2010. He graduated with a degree in history.